A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
1st Apr 2015
As a young woman, struggling with suicidal ideation, the prospect of reading another mass suicide sister novel is side-eye emoji central. But A Reunion of Ghosts is not The Virgin Suicides, and the three sisters: Lady, Delph and Vee Alter, are far from the blonde pubescent Lisbon sisters; they are Jewish, they are middle aged and they are hilarious. There is still of course a predictability to suicide in literature, suicide is never a plot twist, it’s a first page reveal. But Judith Claire Mitchell gets this, knows that all those Ophelias and Lux Lisbons are becoming increasingly like one of those threadbare anecdotes brought out by relatives at parties, she even likens suicide notes to “hallmark cards”. “Suicide is not for academics” the narrators quip, a reminder of the many ways mental health is pressed into boring books like pressed flowers.
Unhappy families work well within questions of suicide, held within the medium of a novel. Imperfect suicides, imperfect lives, imperfect language: all the ‘not quites’ that make up the whole. The “typos on your tomb stone” paired with the “DNA as a trail of bread crumbs” that provide an unflattering, but not unwelcome, family portrait. Because A Reunion of Ghosts is, primarily, a family history novel, with chapters in the past and chapters in the present, comparisons can be drawn with Jeffrey Eugenides (and no, not for The Virgin Suicides, but for his migrant family saga Middlesex.) Junot Diaz’s cursed family tragi-comedy The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could be seen as a brother to Mitchell’s book too.
If thematically we can draw comparisons with Middlesex and The Brief History of Oscar Wao, stylistically this novel is a child of Angela Carter. The Alter sisters are surely siblings of a sort to Dora and Nora in Carter’s final work, Wise Children, itself a study of sisterhood, old father time and the theatrics of family. And Carter’s “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people” line is complicated when applied to the dark comic lives (and deaths) of the Alter sisters. Because who are ‘other people’ anyway, and how do you factor in your own family tree, inherently intimate, but equally just a name, a ghost: a picture on a wall? “Some day this will all be funny” says Lady uncertainly after a suicide attempt, and is disappointed to find that decades later it still isn’t.
“My body is not a text” is Vee’s retort to a doctor, refusing to let herself be reduced to simple symptoms and diagnoses when faced with terminal illness.It should be noted that A Reunion of Ghosts is as much about ‘Jewishness’ (if such a thing exists) as it is about death and family. Or are all three the same thing? Is being a Jew a living death in a world such as this? (My own- unwanted- nickname at school was Anne Frank after all; make of that what you will.) Because to occupy the space of the Jew often feels like being a total contradiction, life and death, past and future, left and right. And the Alter sisters feel this too, being the great granddaughters of a Jewish scientist who, inadvertently, in his chemical formulations created the gas chambers of the holocaust. “The Gertrude Stein of chemical warfare” they describe him, tongue in cheek. Well I suppose even the word genocide had to be invented at one point.
Mortality and comedy are developed in the chronic illness humour than runs within the novel, jokes on cancer so black they are almost blue. Here language is agency to be held by the patient against the doctor. “My body is not a text” is Vee’s retort to a doctor, refusing to let herself be reduced to simple symptoms and diagnoses when faced with terminal illness.
A Reunion of Ghosts is a story of unravelling bodies and unlikely stories, and is a welcome child of the family saga genre. And I can totally see the Alter family’s blurry thumb-printed portraits hanging on the wall of that family home we call a library.